Category Archives: Classroom Culture

Embracing Silliness in Skills Practice

As teachers of writing, it can be tempting to jump straight into a big, meaty composition or class discussion to get a feel for where our students’ skill levels are at the beginning of the year. High expectations, planned scaffolds, but somewhere it takes a left turn in a very different direction because the students do not feel confident enough to fully participate. 

When I was a brand new baby teacher, I had no idea there was another way to gauge my students’ skills. So we jumped in the deep end, feet-first, and had a collective sink or swim moment. They sank. I sank. Life preservers all around.

In a previous post, I wrote about ways to address perfectionism in student writing. We write daily in my classroom because quantity leads to quality. Sometimes the prompts are in response to quotes. Other times, I have my students respond to something completely bonkers. Oftentimes, these prompts are used to prime a lesson that builds the skills they need for something bigger. 

One of the best ways to build skills and confidence in the classroom is to embrace silliness. Here are some tips and perks.

1. Plan Backward

This isn’t new and I’m sure we’ve all heard this at some point, but the reminder doesn’t hurt. Work backward from your end goal as you plan.  

My seniors have been working on social commentary and I knew that I wanted them to craft an original piece of social commentary in addition to being able to engage in academic discussions about their topics. 

By the end of their time with me, they will have one of my catch-phrases permanently embedded in their brains- if you can talk about it, you can write about it. Unfortunately, they weren’t ready to talk about such intense and heavy topics in a way that was constructive. 

2. Back to Basics

Don’t get me wrong. I love a good, well-crafted student composition. But I like to walk it back and work on the skills needed to complete that task so students have the confidence to actually begin. By “walk it back”, I mean waaaaay back. Sometimes, taking baby steps early in the year means major leaps and bounds later. 

This is where you ditch the worksheets and other skills practice that robs the joy from your practice. Gamify it. Be ridiculous. Have no fear. 

For my purposes, a silly writing prompt. 

Students came in at the beginning of the unit to the following prompt: Is a hotdog a sandwich? Craft an argument to convince someone else. 

They gave me All. The. Side-Eye. They wrote. They giggled. But they wrote. 

It took me a little while to come around to the understanding that extremely low-stakes practice is often the best way to reinforce old skills and to introduce new skills. If we make it fun and create a positive association, that skill is going to stick. 

3. Chunk It 

When fully embracing silliness in skills practice, be prepared for a slow release. The goal is for content mastery, not speed. You can adjust your pacing to your students’ needs. 

My aim is to find that balance between skill-building in a low-stakes environment and making it a positive experience. Laughter is a bonus. 

The path from silly writing prompt to final class discussions and original social commentary took several class periods, but oh my stars was it worth every additional, hysterical second.

4. Facilitates Easy Modeling

If the practice is goofy but engaging, it gives you the opportunity to model the skills or behaviors you are attempting to have students master. In my case, it was academic discussion and reinforcing the use of evidence to support a viewpoint. 

I gave my students a set of sentence stems to help foster civil discourse in an academic discussion. So far, so good. Then, I paired them up and tasked them with using the stems to discuss their responses. Easy peasy. I simply had to float around the room while these awesome humans carried out their discussions. 

When I tell you that I did not expect the levels of investment from students over a discussion about hotdogs, I am not kidding. Did you know that the US Department of Agriculture has an official definition of a sandwich? I didn’t either, but I do now. 

5. Tie It All Together

As with any new skill, we want our kiddos to own it and use it well. This is the moment we’ve been coaching them for. This is where you shift from low-stakes practice to linking the skills back to your end goal. 

My kids researched and wrote and crafted some fabulous original pieces of social commentary. Then, they engaged in discussions in groups of 8 to 10 students. I was absolutely blown away with how well, even the most timid, students were able to share their thoughts about some pretty heavy topics. 

These kids were able to disagree, ask clarifying questions, and offer different opinions better than many adults I’ve seen. No raised voices. No tears. No ad hominem fallacies. 

**BONUS TIP**

In the spirit of adding a little laughter and some extra eye-rolling to break up the seriousness that is a group of high school students in English class, consider a silly song for a transition or brain break. A personal favorite is “It’s Raining Tacos” by Parry Gripp. 

Dance parties are highly encouraged.

How can you bring some silliness into your skills practice?

Samantha is a wife, mom to three tiny humans, high school English teacher, perpetual student, Texas transplant, and lover of beautiful stories. She spends her days seeking levity in the chaos, sharing her passion for writing and storytelling with students, and searching for her constantly misplaced cup of reheated coffee. You can follow Samantha on Instagram and Twitter @SimplySivils or on her terribly neglected blog http://simplySivils.wordpress.com/.

Things I Learned in August

One of my favorite podcasters/writers/self-help gurus is Emily P. Freeman. She has such a soothing voice and some really great advice. Her podcast is “The Next Right Thing,” and she also has a book by that title. The podcast has everything to do with decision-making, reflecting, and taking the next right step. It helped me a great deal during the 2021-2022 school year when I couldn’t look past the next day without having a total breakdown.

One of her reflective practices is to write what you have learned “within a season.” She encourages you to define “season” however that feels right to you. For me, back to school, a.k.a. August, is a whole season in itself. Here are the things I learned in August:

  • What a panic attack feels like
  • That taking the summer off, really off, probably kept me in this career field
  • That changing schools is hard and uncomfortable, but also challenging in the best way
  • That it’s very difficult to keep up with your blog responsibilities when you are working 10+ hour days and collapsing once you get home (sorry!)
  • What PTSE is and how it makes so much sense
  • To use “good readers…” and “good writers…” when developing objectives/teaching points

For today’s post, I am going to pull out one of those learnings to expound on in hopes it helps you the way it has helped me.

PTSE

In August, I started reading Tarana Burke’s and Brene Brown’s new anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame, and the Black Experience. In one of the pieces, “The Blues of Vulnerability: Love and Healing Black Youth” by Shawn A Ginwright, he writes about the term PTSD being “inadequate to capture the depth, scope, and frequency of trauma” in the environments of Black youth. Instead, he proposes the term “persistent traumatic stress environments,” or PTSE’s, to demonstrate the constant fear, trauma, or sadness that comes with food insecurity, lack of housing, and more. These are not things that live in the past and haunt our present; they are current stressors that affect these kids everyday.

After reading this piece, I had many epiphanies about my students’ experiences and some of the roadblocks they may have to learning. There is an urgency in front of us to both rid communities of these constant stressors by building better living conditions and also to meet students’ mental health needs now. We have to always stay in front of it because it is present, not past.

I also had a realization about my own experience. I have been grappling to find the words to describe how I feel to my husband, my parents and all the other non-educators around me. I am not feeling PTSD from last year. I am also not sure I am feeling burnt out because I took a true break over the summer and have felt that it really helped me recover. I think I am living in a persistent traumatic stress environment. Now, please hear me clearly when I say that I am a middle-class, white, cisgender, heterosexual female and I in no way think my experience is equal to the youth that Ginwright speaks of. However, he did give me some new language to clarify how I am feeling. I am so happy to not be teaching hybrid and to be able to be more interactive with my students this year. But I am also feeling extreme amounts of stress that I haven’t experienced before (see “learning what a panic attack feels like” above). I am feeling pressure to “get things back to how they were before” and to “close learning gaps.” I am also feeling pressure to keep my students safe because my state has done nothing to do so, and we have a massive amount of cases. My mind is always going, I am always feeling like I can’t possibly get it all done, and I am always aware that we are not doing enough for what these kids need. These feelings came as a major disappointment to me because I was expecting this year to be better for a lot of reasons. It was confusing and upsetting that I was still feeling the 100-pound weight of stress digging into my chest everyday.

With this new clarity around my feelings with PTSE’s, I have been able to offer myself some grace. I understand now that I won’t just be rid of the stress after I just get past this hurdle or that deadline. I will still have to think about how best to set up my room/do activities to keep kids as safe from COVID as possible. I will still have to find every avenue of creativity to help these students get back on track. With this knowledge, I made the decision to work some longer days than normal but to also create a work-home boundary to prioritize real rest in the evenings and on the weekends. There may be no end to this PTSE in sight, but with understanding of the problem and some strategies I can handle it better than I was when I was just trying to make it to a new day expecting it to be better. Because I have put on my own oxygen mask, as they say, and done the work to take care of myself, I am better equipped to help my kids through this extremely stressful time.

For example, I understand that many of my students are also living in these environments- because of mental health situations, race, economic status, living as a teenager in a pandemic, etc. I can use this knowledge to help them also find similar boundaries and grace for themselves, too. I really enjoyed the advice in the reflective piece “Two Weeks In…” and think these are great ways to get students through their own PTSE’s.

Rebecca Riggs is in her 5th year of teaching. She has moved to a different school in the Houston, TX area and is teaching ELA II. She is surviving these times by throwing caution to the wind and eating/drinking all the Fall things even though it’s still 90 degrees and not technically Fall yet. She is reading You Are Your Best Thing and The Tattooist of Auschwitz. She and her husband will celebrate 10 years together this month, which makes her giggle because they met when she was her students’ age.

The Yearning to Learn Carries On

Just like Nathan Coates in his post last week, I have been thinking about the conversation surrounding Critical Race Theory in schools. From what I have seen in my area, fear is playing a huge role: fear of the unknown, fear of discomfort, fear of hard conversations. Now, I firmly believe that many of the things coming up for CRT are misguided. Too many terms are becoming synonymous that aren’t- “anti-racism” is equated with “white fragility” is equated with “race-baiting” is equated with “critical race theory.” It seems to go on and on, but each of these things is so different from the next.

As I took my first vacation with my husband alone since our honeymoon four years ago to Atlanta, Georgia last week, I had an epiphany. I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago that nature is where I come up with my best writing ideas. While exploring Georgia, specifically Sweetwater Creek State Park, I took a moment to sit on a big swath of metamorphic rock (I originally wrote “granite,” but my geologist husband corrected me) lodged into the hill on the riverside to watch the whitewater flow. Lots of things came up for me: this water kept flowing amidst a worldwide pandemic, this water kept ceaselessly eroding away the rock beneath it while we struggled to figure out what school looked like this year and what was best for students, and this water kept finding the path of least resistance while fear was being brandished after racial reckoning, insurrection, and the fallout. I got emotional as I realized that our kids kept going, too. It was different from all the years before, but they still had an obvious ache inside of them for learning. Just like that water, their natural human tendency to want knowledge and want to understand kept flowing. I think I forgot that at times this year.

If you ever go to the state park, this can be seen on the red trail.

While I was stuck in my mindset about how learning has looked for decades and how that was so different this year, I missed some amazing moments that I am just realizing right now. Together, my students and I processed a pandemic, the politics that raged around that pandemic, the racial reckoning, the history-making insurrection, and the movement toward a more “normal” return to life. They created powerful “America to Me” videos to start off the year so we could see our country through their eyes (using this video as a mentor text). They taught me new things about how to look at texts during their book clubs. They took on big topics that they felt passionate about and researched them to create a website for publishing (adapted from an idea from Kelly Gallagher using this site as a mentor text). We may have read less texts and written less formal essays than in years past, but these kids learned. Not because of me, but because of their instinctive will as human-beings to make meaning. No one could have stopped their learning no matter how hard they tried.

With this epiphany and the war against CRT gnawing at the back of my mind, I realized that the kids are going to be alright. I am hoping for some more nuanced conversations between politicians and adults about what CRT actually is and what free speech/true inquiry in the classroom should look like, but even if all those adults let these kids down by not having those tough but necessary conversations, I know my kids will keep talking about it. They will keep asking questions and not stopping until they get an answer. They have a deep yearning to learn that can’t be thwarted by misguided laws, just like that body of water won’t be stopped by rocks or trees. My hope lies in the fact that the kids will always find a way to make meaning, no matter what we do or don’t do. However, our job is to remove the obstacles to learning to make it flow easier, not add more resistance to their path.

*Many of our curriculum ideas mentioned here were created in large part due to my colleague, Deanna Hinnant’s, amazing mind. You can find her at @DAHinnant on Twitter.

Rebecca is moving into her 5th year of teaching at a new school, Conroe High School. She is looking forward to a fresh start and all the ways this move is getting her out of her comfort zone. In the meantime before school starts up again, she is resting hard by bingeing TV, reading tons of books, and relaxing in the pool. She is currently reading Sanctuary by Paola Mendoza and Abby Sher. You can find Rebecca @riggsreaders on Instagram or @rebeccalriggs on Twitter.

Micro-writing for the Win

Sometimes it takes a lot of patience. That was my first thought when I read Sarah’s post last month The Hits Will Come. She shares how baseball and writing have a lot in common–both require a lot of practice. And sometimes the “hits” come quickly for student writers. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes we have to help students want to even try to write a hit.

My thoughts turned to a student I taught last year. I’ll call him Dan. The very first day of class as I made the rounds, trying to speak to each students individually for just a moment, Dan said to me, “Miss, I know you just said we were gonna write a lot in this class, but I gotta tell you, I can’t write. I mean, really, not even a decent sentence.”

theofficeofficequotes.com

Of course, I appreciated the honesty, and that Dan thought enough about how I started the class to tell me straight up how he felt, but inside I was thinking, “Dude, you are a senior about to graduate high school in a couple of months, what do you mean you can’t write a sentence?” Of course, I didn’t say that. Instead I asked him why he thought he couldn’t write. His answer still makes me angry.

“My teacher last year told me,” he said. “I failed every essay. I just couldn’t seem to write what she wanted me to write.”

So many thoughts.

Over the course of the first several days of class, I made sure to find the time to talk with Dan. I learned that he had plans to go into the military as soon as he graduated. I learned that the only book he’d read all the way through in his 11 years of school was American Sniper by Chris Kyle.

And during the next few weeks, I learned that Dan could write–when he chose what he wanted to write about, and when his peers and I gave him feedback that made him feel like he was a writer. This took a lot of time and patience.

First, Dan had to want to write. He had to know that I wasn’t going to judge whatever he put on the page. He had to trust that I was sincere in 1) wanting to know what he thought, 2) helping him string sentences together so they said what he wanted them to say.

Reading helped. Since Dan liked Chris Kyle’s book, I helped him find other books written by those who had served in the Armed Forces. Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell and No Easy Day by Mark Owen were ones my own soldier son had read. Then, I found the list “Best Modern Military Accounts” on Goodreads.com and the article The 13 Best Books the Military Wants Its Leaders to Read. Dan didn’t read any of these books (not for my lack of trying to get him to choose a book), but during independent reading time, he did read about them–and this was enough to give me talking points to help him understand why growing in his confidence as a writer might be in his best interest– and topics for him to write about that semester.

Relationships helped. Since Dan had been so forthright with me about his experience with writing, I asked if he’d share his thoughts about writing with the peers who shared his table. He was all too eager! I’m pretty sure he thought his peers would share his writing woes. But like a miracle from heaven, Dan happened to have chosen to sit with two confident and capable writers. These students did not know one another before my class, but they grew to trust each other as we followed the daily routines of self-selected independent reading, talking about our reading, writing about our reading (or something else personal or thematically related to the lesson), and sharing our writing with our table groups.

Prior to independent notebook writing time, sometimes I’d say, “Today as you share your writing in your groups, let’s listen for just one phrase or sentence that you think holds a punch. Talk about why you like what they wrote.” This instruction gave students a heads up. Oh, I need to be sure to write at least one pretty good sentence.

One pretty good sentence was a good starting place for Dan. This micro writing gave Dan his first “hits.” And once he started to gain some confidence, he started to write more. Once Dan started to write more, he started asking for help to make his writing better. I think that is what it means to be a writer–wanting to improve your writing.

I think sometimes we get rushed. We expect more than some students are able to give. When I first started teaching, I assigned writing instead of teaching writers. Thank God I learned a better way. I would have missed out on a lot of joy in my teaching career.

I don’t know that Dan will ever have to write in his career in the military. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that he can write, and he knows he can. Even if it’s just a pretty good sentence and another and another.

Amy Rasmussen lives in a small but about to burst small town in North Texas with her husband of 35 years, her poison dart frogs Napoleon and Lafayette, her Shelties Des and Mac, and her extensive and time-consuming rare tropical plant collection. She believes educators should Do Nothing all summer. (Affiliate link, so you buy, 3TT gets a little something.) You can find Amy on Twitter @amyrass, although she rarely tweets anymore, or on IG @amyleigh_arts1, where she posts about grandkids and grand plants.

Tried and (Still) True: An Architectural Approach to Writing

Helen Becker

If you know me, you know that I am a Brene’ Brown fan. No, take that back. I’m a huge Brene’ Brown fan. Brown helps me make my life make sense, both personally and professionally. Brown’s work as an ethnographic researcher influenced my research in educational best practices. As I began my doctoral research in self-efficacy and perceptions of college and career readiness among high school students, I gravitated to Brown’s experiences in grounded theory. Grounded theory, she writes, evolves from people’s lived experiences rather than from experimentation to prove or disprove theories.

Brown adds, “In grounded theory, we don’t start with a problem or a hypothesis or a literature review, we start with a topic. We let the participants define the problem or their main concern about the topic, we develop a theory, and then we see how it fits in the literature.”

Reflecting on these statements, I had an “A ha!” moment: much the same happens in the writing process when a teacher allows students to authentically express their thoughts and ideas. We create opportunities for our students to start with a topic – maybe a person, place, or a moment – and see where the writing takes them. Then we add layers and layers of instruction to shape the first draft into new drafts and eventually, maybe, into various writing products. A poem? Perhaps. An essay? Form follows function.

We teach writers how to bend their writing into new and different forms rather than generating prompt after prompt after prompt for students to write in circles of nothingness.

So how does Brene’ Brown fit into this blog post? Brown’s May 4th Dare to Lead podcast features author and leadership expert, Douglas Conant, and his new book (with Amy Federman) The Blueprint: 6 Practical Steps to Lift Your Leadership to New Heights. Conant’s book, like many featured by Brown, has high priority on my “To Read Next” list. In the podcast, Conant discusses the importance of a strong foundation to guide us through times of uncertainty. Times like now. Our experiences, Conant states, are a blueprint for our future.

Brown and Conant’s discussion intersected my own thinking as I pondered the next installment of “Tried and (Still) True” for Three Teachers Talk. What came to mind? Blueprinting.

Blueprint writing from an equity stance means considering spaces other than the “traditional” blueprint layout.

Tried and (Still) True – June 2021

This month, I’m sharing The Blueprint, modified from a lesson learned by many Abydos teachers, with credit for the original lesson going to Dr. Joyce Armstrong Carroll in the first edition of Acts of Teaching and Peter Stillman in Families Writing. While the original lesson described in Acts of Teaching calls for a house-esque foldable, over the years, I modified the lesson to have students think about any dwelling space (a home, a basketball arena, a car) where they could envision a blueprint. Modifying the lesson in this way meets the needs of students who may not have a place to call home but rather a place where they feel at home.

Here’s a rough sketch of The Blueprint lesson cycle:

We begin with the concept of a blueprint: what is a blueprint, who uses it, what it communicates, and why it is important? We look at sample blueprints and engage in some inferential thinking based on what the blueprint communicates between and beyond the architect’s blue lines.

Then I invite students to think about a space that is important to them. We might draw on previous pre-writing activities such as “People, Places, Moments” or an A to Z list. I encourage students to think about spaces other than a house: one student drew the dashboard of his beloved vintage (beatup) Camaro while another chose the principal’s office because he spent a lot of time there. Before students land on a place to sketch, I model how I sketched the blueprint of my grandmother’s house in Longview, Texas. I tell them how the details you can’t remember don’t matter. What matters is what you remember. I also remind them this isn’t Art class. I’m not grading the accuracy of the drawing.

Once students get their own blueprint generated, I have them focus on one aspect of the blueprint where they can add more detail: what is on the walls? Is there furniture? Plants or trees? Photos? This line of inquiry generates more details to add to the blueprint.

For example, some student-writers feel more comfortable on the basketball court or soccer field.

Then I invite students to write about the connections they feel to this space or to one aspect of the space they just drew. These connections may turn into a narrative or an informative piece or a poem. Form follows function.

One year, a student blueprinted my classroom. He wrote, “In Mrs. Becker’s classroom, I can be myself. I can walk in the door, sit in my desk, look at the pictures of her family, and I feel like I am part of her family too.”

Carroll says in Acts of Teaching, blueprinting “allows students to recreate places that hold memories worth writing about” (18). It is in these memories that stories come back to life from the perspective of the writer, now a few years older and hopefully wiser. Collecting these stories on paper, what Brene’ Brown calls “storycatching,” becomes a means to understand our past and use our memories, both positive and negative, to guide our writing and shape our future selves.

About the author:

One time I blueprinted my Moscow kitchen and wrote about scorching quinoa and testing the bounds of international relations.

Dr. Helen Becker has used blueprint writing as a pre-writing vehicle in nearly every high school ELA course she has ever taught, accounting for roughly 16 years of her own blueprint stories! She has blueprinted about life in her tiny Moscow apartment (pictured here) with her husband as well as the layout of the #8 hole – her nemesis – at Leland Country Club. In her current role as a Research Data Analyst for Clear Creek ISD in the Houston, Texas, area, she is more likely to blueprint her two-screen Excel spreadsheet dashboard than the dashboard of her car.  Her newest blueprint story though? Designing the guest room of her new home to welcome her first grandson for a visit at the end of June. The library of children’s books continues to grow by the day.

Using sorts to shake up the routine and move toward student-generated talk

So much of what happens in English class is internal. Students read and think, they think and write, and we work to help them make their thinking visible. When we aren’t reading and writing we’re often talking, which can still feel internal (or less hands-on) as we process what others say and ponder how to respond. Sometimes, especially at the end of the year, I feel the weight of this routine and want to shake things up so we can better enter into into those reading, thinking, and writing times.

One small strategy I’ve been relying on this year to add some hands-on moments in my junior English classes is a simple sort. Basically I gave each group a pile of examples (short texts, images, quotes, etc.), asked them to sort the examples on their tables, and asked them to defend their arrangements. The task is quick, collaborative, somewhat tactile, and it gives me a chance to engage each group with some on-the-spot feedback as groups tend to stand around their tables (you can see this in the second picture below) and try different sorting patterns. We often did this as a bell-ringer to review the previous lesson or as an extension activity. It can be as quick as five minutes or drawn out to fifteen if the discussion is rich and I spend time with each group. This year my room was organized in 7 groups of 4 and we tried the following types of sorts:

  • Spectrum sort: Students sorted these sources on a spectrum between “truthiness” and “factfulness” (our research unit focus was conspiracy theories) and then had to defend the placement. This gave me a chance to ask groups and individuals really specific sourcing questions: “Why is the Flat Earth tweet more factful than the Taylor Swift tweet? Why does your group have the article with a quote closer to truthiness than the NASA piece?” You could easily substitute any two traits on a spectrum to reframe the evaluation of examples.
  • Quadrant sort: Students map pictures of the characters (I usually do this with Of Mice and Men or Gatsby) into four quadrants using two traits like empathy and likability. For example, Curley’s wife may not be likable but we empathize with her. Tables can compare the four quadrants easily since it’s visual which extends the discussion. It also leads to great thinking about the two axis traits (for example, what do you notice about who we tend to empathize with? How does the Fitzgerald render Tom unlikable? Is likability or our ability to empathize with a character more important?). Students could easily re-map using two different traits. And really, after the sort and discussion they’re ready to write about these characters.  
  • Pattern sort: For this I usually tell students: “Choose a way to organize the examples you have.” I’ve used quotes, books, and editorial cartoons (I pull 5-6 from the current week). They usually struggle to think of how to do this, figure something out, explain their logic, and then I tell them, “Great. Now do it a different way.” It forces them to think about the relationships between the texts or ideas in different ways as they generate their own spectrums or quadrants. I like to do this after independent reading when people have a variety of books because the discussion becomes rich as they consider character, plot, structure, setting, and symbols without realizing that’s what they’re doing. When sorting quotes, it’s a good segway into thinking about the structure of an essay (considering the quotes like different examples you might organize).

This is a pre-Covid example of a pattern sort my students did with their summer reading novels.

  • Classification sort: This is a more straight-forward formative check. I can quickly tell if students have the right mode for this collection of short visual texts and coach them on-the-spot.

This is not a magical or earth-shattering strategy, but it’s easily adaptable and I like how it enables opportunities for me to shift from teacher-generated discussion to co-creation and student-generated discussion (see Kallack and Zmuda for more on this).

Teacher Generated

I specify the type of sort and the parameters

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters based on their likability and empathy

Teacher and Student Co-Created

I specify the type of sort and they set the parameter

ex: create a quadrant sort for these Gatsby characters by choosing two traits

Student Generated

Students specify the type of sort they will use and articulate their own parameters

ex: take these examples and organize them in some fashion; be ready to defend how and why they’re organized that way

The liveliness of the discussion makes me keep coming back to this simple strategy. Because it’s hands-on and visual students willingly engage and it adds energy to the room.  I’m able to talk more with students (instead of at them) as they work. By catching each group I can directly question or follow-up with nearly every student during a sort. This lets the lesson start with a conflict or problem to solve so it gives us momentum. Then we’re ready to dive into the next reading, thinking, or writing task, a little more awake, a little more ready to take on the world.

Nathan Coates teaches junior English at Mason High School, a large suburban district near Cincinnati, Ohio. He’d love to hear what books you’re excited about reading or adding to your class reading lists next year: coatesn@masonohioschools.com

Returning to the Classroom – A Masked Year in Uncertain Times

When I found out late last summer that I’d be returning to the classroom in person, full time for the 2020/2021 school year, I was equal parts elated and terrified. Having basically not left my house in months, I couldn’t fathom how we’d manage to move back into the classroom with any sense of normalcy or how I’d keep myself, my family, my colleagues, and my students safe simultaneously. Pandemic teaching sounded to me like a mashup of dystopian proportions.

At the same time, teaching from home all last spring brought with it challenges I didn’t relish either (My husband and seven year old daughter were home working alongside me and there were times we were each/all ready to pack a bag and go…who knows where. Mostly elsewhere). I once again considered returning to my roots as a barista or possibly trying to sleep through the coming school year. Healthy, yes?

As news trickled in about navigating our return, it was clear we were building an airplane thirty-two thousand feet off the ground. A noble effort to be sure, but harrowing, dangerous, frightening, and quite possibly deadly. As educators have been time and again, we were being shoved to the front lines. Not as well-equipped or even trained first responders, but instead, as the humble servants who apparently swore oaths to serve and protect no matter the circumstances or cost. I was to be handed a mask and optional face shield, told to keep distance from the thirty students in my room, and do the job I had signed up to do. It did not sit well.

I raged – How could they ________ ?
(Fill in the above blank with four million questions about how it would all possibly work)

I feared for my safety – If I get sick what will happen to ________?
(Fill in the above blank with anyone I love and had been working so hard to protect in the previous months by staying home, masking, not hugging my own mother, etc.)

I cried – But what if _______?
(Fill in the above blank with an equal number of less rational and more emotionally charged wonders)

And while I’m not here to tell you it’s all gone perfectly, or that all of my initial concerns were or even could be addressed before we jumped in, or that the same will be true for you if you’ve yet to return – we have in fact done it. For eight months, I’ve taught in person and virtually at the same time (during the same class hour, in fact). 30 kids in my classroom. Masks all the day through. Suspicious eyes cast on every cough, sneeze, and inadvertently exposed nose.

We’ve shut down just once for two weeks last fall, but otherwise through a revolving door of exclusions for both students and teachers, staff turnover, extended class periods to allow time for cleaning each hour, and nervous moments spent supervising hundreds of unmasked students during lunch…we’ve supported one another through the uncertainty.

In some ways, things are no different than they ever were. My students read at the start of each period, write about what matters to them, and challenge themselves to discuss the weighty issues of our times both intelligently and diplomatically. The room looks much as it always has, but beneath the masks we wear each day, are fears and questions and uncertainties and trauma I could not have imagined last spring when I walked to my room in a haze on March 13th after a brief staff meeting suggesting our spring break would be extended by a week, gathered a few items to teach from home, and looked around at my empty classroom with a growing sense of dread.

Over a year later and as a mirror to live outside of my classroom, it all seems surreal. The longest school year of my life and the quickest. The most stressful, to be sure, but also the most challenging in ways that have caused me to grow in resilience, patience, and compassion.

A few days ago, Melissa asked if we were okay. My answer is yes, and no, and sort of, and I don’t even know. The layers of exhaustion wrought by worry, extra duties, student exclusions, positive Covid cases in my room, and teaching as I never have before (basically tethered to my desk so students at home can hear me while students in the room likely wonder whether my ankles are twisted or I’ve just grown lazy) are just too much. And yet, having kids in my classroom (and even teaching Virtual Film as Literature to 34 black Google Meet boxes), is the light in this dark time. Their curiosities and triumphs push me forward.

So, if you are staring down a return in fall, I cannot be the one to hug you (for obvious reasons) and say everything will be alright. But I can assure you through my example, that you are not alone in your fears, but likewise not alone in the overwhelming sense of joy you’ll feel by seeing your students in person and stretching in a thousand ways to inch back toward a new normal.

What I have learned in this past year (not related to making your own cleaning products, conserving toilet paper, or managing familial relations in close quarters for weeks on end) will forever change my teaching, but also solidify that nothing can shake the core principles that existed well before this pandemic …

  • Students and teachers are resilient, but still human:
    • If there was ever a circumstance to put patience and understanding at the forefront of our work, this pandemic is certainly a contender. It adds an ever present layer of uncertainty that is equal parts traumatic and debilitating. We’ve all experienced loss and change and fear and stress in ways we’ve collectively never experienced before. As ever, students need structure and support as they school in new and sometimes scary ways. Listen more/talk less. Write more/grade less. Read more/test less. Be there for your students, but also for yourself.
  • Reading and writing offer timeless benefits we know well, but choice is more important that ever:
    • I recall last spring, the push to have students write about their experiences in quarantine. And then the push back with the consideration that many students couldn’t/didn’t want to try and process this fresh trauma. It’s been my guide this year in offering students far more opportunities to process through SEL grounded prompts, but there’s always choice. Some students have written all year about the pandemic and what it’s meant to them, done to/for them, taken from them. Some students want to write about anything but. In the weeks and months ahead, our students will be on different timelines with their experiences and per the usual, it will be our job to be equal parts support system and challenger to process the world in which we live. Fall back always on choice – it provides for our students what our limiting circumstances often cannot.
  • Toxic positivity is not the answer, but active engagement in seeking positivity can be:
    • We cannot know how deep the cuts from our recent experiences truly are. We don’t know for ourselves or our students. Personally, the opportunity for deep and meaningful change that seems to have passed us by in hitting the pause button on traditional schooling is a deep cut. The standardized test slog is still in place (don’t get me started on the calls to measure “learning loss” with tests, tests, and more tests…though there are some reasonable voices out there), our hours/schedules/calendars are largely unchanged despite unprecedented additions of responsibilities and stress, and most importantly, to my mind, the opportunity to restructure in a meaningful way to address unconscionable achievement gaps often resulting from inequitable systems and misinformed priorities across education. This year has reminded me that I must continue to use my voice to advocate change in our work, but the moment to moment with kids demands that I give them as much positivity as I can muster. And when my store of smiles is low, I give myself the grace to take a step back, take a deep breath, and take time for myself, because in this circumstance we need to take a little to have anything left to give.

Above all, do what you need to do to balance the unending demands so that you and your family come first every single time. We are only as good for our students as we can be to ourselves, and we can be better each day when we prioritize our health, our loved ones, and our own sanity.

Lisa Dennis spends her school days teaching AP Language, English 9, and Virtual Film as Literature while also leading the fearless English Department at Franklin High School, just outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin where she lives with her husband Nick, daughter Ellie, and beagle Scout.  She now tries to live life based on the last pieces of advice her dad gave her –
Be kind. Read good books. Feed the birds. Follow Lisa on Twitter @LDennibaum

The Culture Code and Writing Conferences: Part 1

I’m a sponge

“I love taking in so much new information that it just oozes out of me at the slightest provocation.” A friend recently described herself this way and, gross imagery aside, I get it. The feeling of having just read or heard or watched something new and being so INTO the idea that you can’t help but bring everything in every conversation back to that idea. We call this sponging. We’re very original.

She sponges…a lot. I sponge…less.

So when I do sponge, I stop and take notice. Last week I finished Daniel Coyle’s The Culture Code*,  which outlines ways to build effective, productive cultures by examining everything from the San Antonio Spurs to Zappos to a call center in India while sprinkling in a healthy amount of research to support his claims. I soaked it all up, finishing the book in a day – and then began oozing ideas about culture and long-term flourishing all over everyone and everything.

See, the book rests upon the idea that humans are constantly (consciously and unconsciously) asking themselves questions as they interact with others:  

  1. Are we connected? 
  2. Do we share a future? 
  3. Am I safe? 

If we can find ways to answer these questions for members in our groups, we can create robust cultures. Confronted with the powerful notion that our brains are trying to answer these three questions all the time even when we’re unaware, I couldn’t help but think of the implicit ways our writing conferences answer these questions and then began to think of ways to make the implicit explicit. So, over my next few blog posts, I’d like to discuss those three questions and how they relate to writing conferences, looking at strategies and routines we could implement to get more from this common practice.

Unpacking the Questions

Question 1: Are we connected? 

Coyle quotes MIT Professor Alex Pentland: “Modern society is an incredibly recent phenomenon. For hundreds of thousands of years, we needed ways to develop cohesion because we depended so much on each other. We used signals long before we used language, and our brains are incredibly attuned to certain types of behaviors.” In short, our brains are constantly and UNCONSCIOUSLY looking for clues that we are connecting to other individuals. It’s why we pay so much attention to facial expressions, why we maintain eye contact, why we turn our bodies to face the people we’re interested in. We’re looking to see that the energy we’re bringing to any given conversation is being matched, that we’re being treated as unique individuals. These often non-verbal cues speak loudly and help answer the second question humans are constantly (and again unconsciously) asking of each other. Part 2 of this series will look at the physical set up of writing conferences and routines I’ve built to answer the “are we connected” strategy. One such routine is my system of weekly feedbacks. You can read about them here

Question 2: Do we share a future?

The non-verbal cues from question one signal that the relationship will continue into the foreseeable future, letting us know that we are connected to others and, thus, are safe. In our social engagements, we have some choice about the kinds of relationships we engage in and the level to which we feel safe. For example, this question makes me think of a volleyball team I play on. With the end of the season nearing and none of us quite sure we want to continue to play together next season, that “do we share a future” question looms large. This uncertainty leads to awkwardness and doubt amongst the teammates, which, unsurprisingly, translates to the way we play on the court. We need a better culture. However, in the classroom, we can’t choose which kids sit in front of us day in and day out. So we might amend that question to “do we share a mutually respectful and productive future?” This safety question becomes even more important because those interactions are created non-voluntarily. Essentially, in our classrooms, our students might consistently be asking themselves (consciously or unconsciously), about the state of their relationship to us, checking in to see where we stand with each other. Answering that question often can put the brain at rest, prepping it to learn and grow more efficiently. Part 3 of this series will look at how we can answer this question through feedback routines and quick check ins with students AFTER the writing conference is over. 

Question 3: Am I safe? 

Maslow had it right – humans just want to know that they’re safe in any given situation. Granted, we’ve developed past the “is that a tiger in the bush” phase in our evolutionary cycle, so we’re less worried about getting actually eaten and more worried about getting metaphorically eaten. The combination of the physical cues (Q1)  that tell a student they belong and that we share a future together (Q2)  work to assure a student that she is safe in our room- safe to learn, to take risks, to grow.  Coyle writes, “They [the cues] seek to notify our ever-vigilant brains that they can stop worrying about dangers and shift into connection mode, a condition called psychological safety.” Part 4 of this series will look at how the one on one attention provided  by conferences allows students to calm the worrying part of their brain and focus more comfortably on the task at hand. I’ll also talk here about how I use writing conferences to navigate the move to a gradeless classroom inspired by Sarah Zerwin. You can read about fellow contributor Sarah Krajewski’s work in the gradeless classroom here

Where do we go from here?

As we begin to answer these questions for students we can work towards communicating our actual message: I care about you as a person and a student. I want you to learn and grow. From here, we can begin to say to students as Coyle writes: “You are part of this group. This group is special; we have high standards here. I believe you can reach those standards.”

*Affiliate link: If you purchase through this link, 3TT gets a little something.

Sarah Morris teaches AP English Language & Composition, AP Seminar  in Murfreesboro, Tn. She is currently rewatching The Good Place. She can’t help it. There’s something about this line from Chidi in Season 2 that gets her every time: “I argue that we choose to be good because of our bonds with other people and our innate desire to treat them with dignity. Simply put, we are not in this alone.” She tweets at @marahsorris_cms. 

Reading through Liberty

My two-year-old grandson is a master manipulator–or maybe he’s just brilliant.

Over the weekend, his mom and dad took a little anniversary trip, so Papa and I tended Indy and his baby brother. More than once, when we needed/wanted/pleaded with Indy to do a certain thing, he ran to the bookcase in our room, pulled out a book–or four or seven–and sat down to read. “Shh. Quiet,” he’d say, patting the space on the floor next to him in a commanding invitation to sit beside him.

What else is a grandparent to do but stop and read with the little man?

We all know the benefits of reading to young children. (Google gives “about 921,000,000 results” for the question.) We also know that somewhere along the way, many children, maybe especially adolescents, come to not like reading.

Most of us face two challenges:

How do I get students to read when they just don’t want to?

How do I get students to read when they just don’t seem good at it?

I used to think it was all about the books. You know, I’d pack the shelves in my classroom library with the most colorful, interesting, inclusive, newly published, award-winning books; I’d talk about these books A LOT, doing my best to match books with student interests. I’d do All The Things.

And, yeah, many students came to like our dedicated daily reading time. Some of them even came to like the books they read. Many of them claimed to have read more than they ever had before. I’m just not super sure how many students came to really like reading.

Maybe that’s okay.

The other day I saw this tweet by Sarah, a friend and contributor to this blog, and I quickly read the whole of the thread posted by Miah on April 4. It’s a beautifully constructed and compelling argument and well worth your time to read in full. Like Sarah, “I’ll be thinking about it for a long time.”

Today, I’m thinking about it here in relation to my tiny grandson and the reader he may be when he’s 10, 14, 17, or 37.

Miah lists reasons we teach reading: “We teach reading for. . .security. . .self-advocacy. . .freedom. . .economic security. . .social justice. . .evolution. . .social advancement. . .liberty in the highest sense of the word.”

and includes this sage advice–

I think we know what “the noise” is, even beyond how Miah describes it. There’s noise in so many aspects of our teaching lives. And sometimes, nay often, it is hard to ignore. Yet you and I both know we must.

And I think one way to do it is to position liberty: We teach reading for liberty, but we also teach reading through liberty.

If you’re nerdy like me, maybe you look up “liberty” in the dictionary. Merriam-Webster offers a whole list of definitions: “The quality or state of being free” and all the context descriptors–all but speak to the importance of student choice when it comes to reading in a high school English class. Thus, a robust classroom library and all the things.

Then, there’s this definition: “a right or immunity enjoyed by prescription or by grant PRIVILEGE

And there it is–the word privilege making me think again.

In context of my teaching practice, who has the liberty to talk, ask questions, move about the room, take risks, choose texts, shape plans, assess learning? What’s privileged, where, and when?

And, yes, I know–if you’ve read this blog for awhile now, I am most likely preaching to the choir.

But even if we “get it,” even if we try it, even if we’re tired of trying or tired of this pandemic, even if we cannot handle one more decibel of noise–if we believe in empowering students with the skills they need to capitalize on the liberty life affords them–or liberate themselves so they have more–we keep thinking and reflecting, and we keep doing the things that help young people have experiences with reading that make them want to read.

Try This “Conversation Starter” (I read it recently in the Morning Brew, an online newsletter I read pretty much every day.)

If your bookshelf could only have five books, what would they be?

You can learn a lot about an individual–positive, negative, and otherwise–depending on the books they choose, or if they don’t make any choices at all.

Amy Rasmussen is a lover of words, color, and living things–like plants, art frogs, and grandkids. She lives in North Texas and escapes for long periods of time on the country roads near her home. She writes (mostly in her notebook) to see and feel and think in new ways, and when it comes to publishing anything publicly, her phobia of heights doesn’t seem half bad. Amy has a book about authentic literacy practices she’s co-written with Billy Eastman due for publication this fall. She’s both excited and terrified. Follow her @amyrass –maybe she’ll get a little more active on social media.

Walk and Confer: Another Way Back

The eleven year old (11 yo) and I–and sometimes the 8 yo–have been going on a lot of walks. Usually initiated by me, he readily (and sometimes the 8 yo but usually if we scooter) accepts. On these walks, I mostly listen. I’ve learned much about Star Wars, the Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter series, LEGOS, Minecraft, the history of baseball, birds… and whatever else he’s been reading and viewing and creating. As we walk, shoulder to shoulder (he’s getting taller!), looking at the trees and for birds, we connect. But I’ve also discovered that I can ask questions. Yesterday 11 yo offered his opinion that books are really preferable to movies because the movies always leave out or change key details (yep, full on book nerds in this house). So I asked him why he thought the movie makers would choose to leave out details. He launched into an animated explanation involving the Harry Potter books versus the movies. Our walking and talking, at times it seems, has been connecting and conferring. We’ve been moving together toward shared meaning. 

This kind of meaningful movement may be just what we need when school resumes. When my 8 yo learned about her first class meeting over Google Meet, she was delighted to learn that she too would get to be the little box on the screen. I laughed, but it’s heart-wrenching. We’ve all become little boxes on the screen. And the limited dimensionality of that is an effect of this shared trauma. When school resumes, then, how do we move together toward shared meaning with the now larger than life persons gathered between our four walls?

We move. We listen. We talk. We engage our learners in the walking reading or writing conference. Instead of pulling up the stool alongside the desk or sitting across the table from one another, business-as-usual acts that might now evoke anxiety and fear after months of social distancing, we walk. Walking will allow us to fall into rapport (body mirroring), to find an easiness with our body language that will make it easier to talk and to connect. Feeling scared or anxious can make it difficult to look someone in the eye, and walking removes that pressure. And knowing that learners will not only need to re-learn how to share a physical space with our bodies and with our words, everyone in the room can walk with a partner as we walk and confer with individual students or pairs of students. We can use questions or prompts (on cards to flip through) or post around the building; here and here are a few resources around walking and talking. Our typical conferring prompts remain valuable, too. Moving and conferring is another way back. Not just to each other. But to meaning and creativity and possibility and hope.

In my head, I keep hearing the words of Virginia Wolff: “Better than these walks…”. These walks with my 11 yo and 8 yo may be what I remember most about this time in quarantine. Better than these walks as learners will be when we can be shoulder to shoulder, connecting, moving together toward renewal. 

Kristin Jeschke likes to move (unless her nose is in a book). She serves an active and caring staff as an instructional coach at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke. 

 

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